The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills.
Three of the most powerful words in the English language.
Whether you want to win someone’s money, muscle, or mind, just one of these words is often all it takes.
That’s why they’re also dangerous,
That’s why they’re often sung by political, economic, and social sirens.
Because of these three words, millions of people live in a trance, transfixed by their desire to get more for less—less effort, energy, or time.
We’ve all been there before.
“Why does it have to be so hard?” we’ve all asked when life has put us on the ropes.
“There’s gotta be an easier way,” we’ve all vented when obstacles have loomed too large.
“I wish someone else could do this for me,” we’ve all lamented when demands have overwhelmed.
It’s perfectly normal to have these types of thoughts. In fact, it’s perfectly normal to use them as excuses to compromise or quit.
According to various studies and surveys, it’s also perfectly normal to be twenty-three pounds overweight, do just three hours of real work and watch five hours of TV per day, and have over $130,000 in debt with less than $1,000 in savings.
One way to escape the terminal disease of normality is to condition yourself to despise easy, fast, and free, and learn to embrace difficulty, tedium, and sacrifice instead.
Steven Pressfield summarized this well in his bestselling book The War of Art:
“The years have taught me one skill: how to be miserable. I know how to shut up and keep humping.”
In E.N. Gray’s enduring essay The Common Denominator of Success, he argued that the biggest thing that sets the successful in any field or endeavor apart from the unsuccessful is the habit of doing the things that most people simply don’t want to do.
It’s not even that successful people like doing these things—they just have enough drive to muster the willpower and energy to do them regardless of how they feel.
I can relate to these sentiments.
I’m often asked for advice on how to be more successful in fitness, business, and life in general. One of the more important lessons I’ve learned and share is this:
If you want a hard life, go in for the easy, fast, and free. If you want an easy life, pursue the hard, slow, and costly.
In other words, I’ve found that the most difficult ways to do things almost always turn out to be the easiest in the end, and often because they’re the only ways that actually work.
I believe in this so wholeheartedly that when I enter a new activity or discipline, the first thing I do is go looking for the purposeful, hard work that most people don’t want to do. I actually ask myself, “What is the average person running away from here?” and more often than not, easily discover the most direct paths to results.
Take fitness, for example.
Right now, millions of overweight, out-of-shape people are at sea, wandering from one “30-day shred” program to another, chasing the easy, fast, and free mirages of fitness.
I recently met someone in the gym who had been stuck in this rat race for years. His name is Josh, and his story was familiar:
He had 30+ pounds to lose, he had tried many fad diets over the years, and he wasn’t sure what to do next. He asked my thoughts on the magic bullet du jour, the ketogenic diet, and here was my reply:
“If you want to finally get in shape, do intense exercise 3 to 5 hours per week, eat 2,000 calories per day and no more, and get at least 150 grams of protein. I don’t care what foods you eat so long as you stick to those numbers, but if you want bonus points, eat some fruits and vegetables too.”
He was skeptical at first. “What about sugar? Carbs? Red meat? You’re saying I can eat any of those things so long as I stick to 2,000 calories and 150 grams of protein per day?”
“Yes,” I replied flatly. “I don’t recommend eating a bunch of sugar because you’ll probably feel like crap, but if you want to have a treat every day, fit it into your calories.”
He thought about it for a minute. “You know, it’s funny you say that because all these years I’ve sworn to myself that I would never count or track calories, and now you—the fittest person I know—are telling me to do just that.”
That was 6 weeks ago, and Josh is now down over 15 pounds, and more importantly, now understands the ground truth about the body composition game, and will never again puzzle over his body weight.
He also shared with me a profound insight that inspired this article.
There was a saying in medieval alchemy, in sterquiliniis invenitur, that roughly translates to “in filth it will be found.” Carl Jung later expounded on this, explaining that what we most want to find in our lives will be found in the places where we least want to look.
This perfectly summarized Josh’s fitness epiphany.
In the filth of energy balance and macronutrient balance—unsexy, unpalatable subjects that he wanted to avoid—he discovered the “diet secrets of the super-fit.”
So it is with most everything in life.
Only in the filth of all the things that are difficult, complicated, uncomfortable, unexciting, and exhausting are the true gems found.
For instance, I’m often asked what book or tip or “trick” has most contributed to my development as a writer. My answer?
I’ve spent six years now in the muck and grime of writing. I’ve read thousands of pages of challenging literature, spent hundreds of hours in dictionaries learning new words, flipped through piles of vocabulary flashcards, copybooked hundreds of pages of work from legendary writers, and produced and published over 1.5 million words of books and articles.
And what has all that gotten me? To a point where I’m merely competent by my own standards. Maybe another six years and I’ll see the glimmerings of great.
I’m also learning German, and instead of wasting time on the easy, fast, and free of language learning (the “be fluent in 3 months!” gaggle of audio programs, software, and apps that are designed to make you feel like you’re progressing toward working fluency when you’re really not), I’m deep in the mines, covered in the soot and grunge of thousands of SRS flashcards, a number of German grammar and sentence building textbooks, and hours of painful practice (oh to feel five years old again!).
But I’m making progress. Real progress. Eines Tages, werde ich gut Deutsch sprechen.
If all this leaves you feeling a little less than inspired, or even a little disillusioned, I understand—I’ve been there—but know this:
Nothing is more difficult and ultimately disappointing than the quest for easy, fast, and free. It’s a shell game of false hopes and fool’s paradises where you simply can’t win.
Someone once asked the Spartan king Leonidas to identify the supreme warrior virtue from which all others flowed. He replied: “Contempt for death.”
For us as strivers and scrabblers of all stripes, read “the difficult.” Contempt for the difficult is our cardinal virtue.
Do This Now
What is a “gem” you currently desire? A shiny, attractive goal that you feel drawn toward?
What is the purposeful, hard work that most people with the same desire don’t want to do? What difficult, complicated, uncomfortable, unexciting, and exhausting things are these people running away from? Reflect on and research this until you have created an extensive list.
Pick one thing from this list that you can do today—right now, even—and do it.
Reflect on how doing this made you feel versus the instances in the past where you went for the fast, easy, or free instead. Which was more satisfying and motivating? Why?